Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports was released forty years ago in 1978. Hailed as the first ever Ambient record, 2018 is something of a celebration for the relatively young genre.
Since the release of Eno’s album artists like Aphex Twin have brought the genre further into the mainstream. Debate may still rage as to the origins of a genre that may have actually been surmised by German electronic artists Kraftwerk with their 1974 album, Autobahn, or perhaps Trans-Europa Express of 1977.
Go further back and you confront more Krautrock in the form of Can, Neu! and Amon Duull 2. Assuredly, some of the same concepts that exist for Ambient music, exist for Noise Rock and for Kraut Rock and even for Punk and Post-Punk. Tangerine Dream were doing it as far back as the late 60’s.
The trouble is not with defining a strict timeline for the beginning, the middle and the end of a genre, but actually with the practice of labelling music as something definitive and unchangeable.
Eno himself created atmospheric world’s on his previous records, Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World, while certain strands of Ambience tend to sometimes be steeped in spiritual notions and associated, as with Alice Coltrane’s Hinduistic Turiya Sings, with meditative states existant for thousands of years.
French composers at the turn of the 19th century, such as Erik Satie with his Gymnopeides series, still remain as relevant to modern music as ever. Satie’s musical experimentations show minimalism at its best. He creates Proustian multi-layers of feeling with only a piano, capturing warmth and feeling with the sparest of instruments. “As ignorable as it is interesting,” the famous Brian Eno quote on that Music for Airports sleeve, seems ready-made for Satie’s music.
At the recommendation of Brad of thruoutin, I did crack the spine on the old Wikipedia. Take note, Modern Ambience is rabbit hole from which you may not return. With offshoots such as Drone Ambience, in the vein of Pool of Light from Shenyang, Dark Ambience, which may satisfy all of your zany needs, or Ambient Dub available at the drop of a finger on your laptop, there is hardly the need to part-take in the listening of any other genre. Just as feeling and emotion never ends, neither does ambience.
Nevertheless, what all of this points to is that Ambient Music is as strong and controversial as the day it came into the public consciousness all that time ago in 1978. Current artists playing around with the idea of creating warm and rich ambient atmospheres include Oneohtrix Point Never, The Orb, The Caretaker and on a more international note, LA/Beijing artists Alpine Decline, Dalian musician Xie Yugang and Beijing based musician thruoutin.
I took the opportunity to speak to both thruoutin, Xie Yugang and Jonathan Zeitlin of Alpine Decline to get their opinion on what it means to be an Ambient artist and what their own idea of Ambient Music is.
thruoutin is a music producer whose work often pertains to natural environments. He has lived in China since 2009, while his musical releases under the moniker thruoutin go as far back as 2006 with I know you’re my voicemails. He also helps to curate and produce music, while also being part of the digital platform Seippelabel (https://seippelabel.com/) which works to foster a community amongst musicians exploring sound around the globe.
Apparently Ambient Music turns 40 this year, which seems much too young for a genre that incorporates so many traditional ideas, what is your approach to ambient music – either as a listener or as a creator of music?
I also feel like the genre itself should be older. I think some of the concepts of the umbrella term ‘ambient’ we use have roots in already existing, meditative evoking styles of music. However, I’m not an expert in the field. I’m sure there’s a length Wikipedia article that can point you in the right direction and actually there’s a great article just on this topic that was put out by FACT MAG:
For me, the listener and the creator are most definitely connected. This can be said about just about any style of music, but it’s especially true in the case of ambient music. When I’m creating material in this vein I try to think about it from the listeners perspective and ask myself if it is something I’d like to listen to. A lot of times I’ll get ideas or a concept that I want to hear that I haven’t found in any other form. Then I’ll try to produce that for myself just so I can listen to what it might sound like.
Do you have a favourite ambient record or musician that you put when you want the vibes to be quite steady and peaceful?
There are quite a few and It’s actually hard to choose just a couple. If you name one you have to name them all. For someone just getting into the genre I’d recommend starting with Brian Eno. Some of my personal favorite international artists would be Two Bicycles, Tim Hecker, Sawako and Sohrab. There are also China-based artists like FM3, Dou Wei, Feeling of Regret, Yang Wenliang, Pool of Light and Yan Jun. I’m also very much into artists on Seippelabel who have released material before like Gardener, Proud Father and Blake Melton. The list could keep going on and I’m probably forgetting some names.
On your most recent album Contingent of Outlying Territories, I felt like there was a lot to be said for your ability to create emotional and ambient atmospheres, do you think a lot about atmospherics when writing your music?
I don’t try to over complicate the idea of having a feeling of atmosphere in a track, but I’m definitely aware of it. At times it simply happens subconsciously and really depends on the theme of a release. With ‘Contingent of Outlying Territory’ I wanted to express a narrative and the different environments within it. From a technical standpoint I wanted to combine elements of other work all into one cohesive piece. There are ambient sounds and field recordings in it which were a focus in EP’s like ‘Apricot Station’ and ‘Fine Valley Pass’. On the other hand there are traditional Chinese elements and beats which were prevalent in the ‘Service’ and ‘Dots’ releases.
As a country steeped in the traditions of meditation and finding oneness with self and nature, China holds a special place in the ambient music canon, have you taken inspiration from traditional Chinese music in the past and if so, how?
Having lived in China since 2009 and actively researched both traditional and modern music, I’ve been influenced by this country quite a bit. My overall knowledge is still quite limited, but there is a lot to be said about regional folk music, Tibetan chants and the subtle story telling of a master playing the Guqin. At times, like with ambient music, they all share aspects of repetition, spacial awareness and offer the listener an environment for meditation. In my own work I prefer to only utilize parts of Chinese culture (or any culture for that matter) that have a direct relationship to my experience rather than blindly implementing them. I’m very careful when it comes to what influences me and how it ends up in stuff I put out.
What kinds of sounds do you particularly enjoying recreating or playing around with? Perhaps natural sounds like running water, or industrial sounds like moving cars a la Kraftwerk?
I’m very interested in field records; both in their unaltered state and how to manipulate them in a creative way. Certain sounds like birds, chatter and running water have all crept their way into my songs, but what really interests me are the unexpected sounds one can come across in daily life. When you go back and listen to them you might not even know what they originated from. An example might be the sounds of a power generator humming at 4 a.m. when no one is out or even a metal pipe being dragged through an alley way. Any sound has potential to be used as a musical element and you would be surprised as to how much the sounds we hear each day can embody tone and rhythm.
thruoutin’s Bandcamp page: https://thruoutin.bandcamp.com/